The Myth of “Public” Art in Santa Monica

The north (left) and south (right) ends of Stanton MacDonald Wright’s mural in Santa Monica City Hall. Photos: Santa Monica Cultural Affairs.

Over the past few years, the Stanton MacDonald Wright murals at the entrance to Santa Monica City Hall have stirred up a controversy. They were a Works Progress Administration project funded during America’s Great Depression. If you’ve ever entered City Hall you’ve seen them. The north mural depicts the Spanish priests arriving at the springs in West Los Angeles and praying to St. Monica, hence the name of our city. The south mural depicts airplanes over the bay, sailboats, people playing tennis, and the wonderful, although fanciful, life we have by living in the City by the Bay.

Many of our diverse residents feel that the native Indians who resided here then would not have bowed down to the priests and Spanish soldiers in the manner portrayed in the mural, and believe it to be a racist characterization.

As an Arts Commissioner, I was one of a committee who met with representatives of the Tongva tribe, professors and prominent Hispanic activists in our city. I was one of those who suggested that the murals remain but be countered by accurate representations of the contributions to our city by the many hardworking diverse pioneers of Santa Monica, with emphasis on the achievements of the working class that built our city.

I have been astounded by many transformations in my native city over the past decade. Unfortunately, many of them have been negative. I thought that the construction of the grossly overpriced City Services Annex at City Hall would at least allow a space for public art that would represent our community within its “living building challenge” interior. I am sad that I was wrong.

Our laudable Percent for Art program is paying for $525,000 of “public” art within the building plus an additional amount for small portable art exhibits. What are we getting for a half million dollars? We are receiving an art project that will extend thirty feet up an interior stairwell on two walls. The other two walls are glass that will be nearly opaque during the daytime. At night, the walls will be lit and translucent. The project is creative and the light changes during the day inside the stairwell will be impressive.

There is one thing you should know. The stairwell is only accessible to city staff, with members of the public able to traverse the stairs or clearly view this artwork only if they are invited into the Annex for a meeting. During the presentation at the Arts Commission meeting, the artist and staff repeated several times that this major Percent for Art public art project in the City Hall Annex is essentially a private art piece with the purpose of encouraging city staff to walk from floor to floor.

The second part of the installation is a three-part series of long translucent glass panels to separate the “public” part of the permit area from the “private” work area for city staff. The glass panels will allow for ventilation and shield the “prying eyes of the public” from those who work behind the scenes pulling the levers of power.

Neither of the installations has any real connection with our city’s history or makes any attempt to assuage the feelings of the cultural groups who have been consistently ignored in our town. The feelings of those who objected to the City Hall murals have been neglected and, again, will not receive any semblance of recognition in the new $142 Million Dollar Annex. Yes, the murals and their computer-generated programs will abstractly represent our local sunsets. However we are choosing not to recognize, or care about, the history of our city. Our concept of ancient civilizations would be clouded had the Greeks, the Romans, the Mayans and other great cultures created only abstract renditions of light and color. Much of their art tells stories.

The City Services Annex building is being constructed to “win” a living building challenge. Children will walk through this building (if they are admitted to the private areas) for generations. Wouldn’t it have been beneficial to all if this new building could be known for more than just compostable toilets and ways to exclude the public, who are toting the bill for the structure, from its interior spaces? We have lost another opportunity to address inequities in our town and to record our city’s heritage for posterity, and that makes me sad.

The Public Art Committee and the Arts Commission both weighed in on this seemingly creative half-million-dollar art project by a respected local artist. The Public Arts Committee voted unanimously in favor of the Percent For Art Artworks Installation in the City Hall Annex. The Arts Commission also approved the project in its entirety. There was one hand raised in opposition. That was my hand.

I want more Public Art in Santa Monica. I want our history, warts and all, to be evident throughout Santa Monica. Spending public funds on nebulous projects that will be housed inside areas inaccessible to our residents is the wrong way to go forward in Santa Monica.

By Phil Brock for SMart (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Thane Roberts Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Phil Brock, Santa Monica Arts Commission. For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing